10 Rattle RachmaninoffRachmaninoff – Symphony No.2
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0851D (lsolive.lso.co.uk/products/rachmaninoff-symphony-no-2)

It’s just about time that we realize Sir Simon Rattle is one of the greatest conductors of our time. His bio is the ultimate success story. As a kid from Liverpool with minor conducting assignments in England, in 2002 at age 42, he was elected music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, the most prestigious and probably the best orchestra in the world. The youngest ever for this honour. He kept this post amazingly until 2018 when he “retired“ with the highest accolades, beloved by the orchestra and the City of Berlin, but his career was far from over. Soon thereafter, he went to Vienna and conducted a wonderful Ring Cycle at the Staatsoper, televised, so I was lucky to watch it. He had numerous recordings on the EMI label, but in 2017 he took over the London Symphony and began recording on the orchestra’s own label, LSO Live.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony is the best of the three he wrote and has always been a favourite of mine. After the failure of his First it shows full maturity of his creative powers. It has a “sustained vitality, richness of lyrical invention and a glowing eloquence capable of rising to extraordinary power” (Robin Hull). Rattle conducts the entire uncut version from memory and it’s such a relaxed and spontaneous reading aided by the highest quality HD sound that so reverberated throughout the house that I was wholly enchanted.

11 Strauss Tone PoemsRichard Strauss – Complete Tone Poems
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden and Freiburg; François-Xavier Roth
SWR Music SWR19426CD (naxosdirect.com/search/swr19426cd)

When searching for the performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra that would mightily reinforce the opening of 2001, A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick finally selected, presumably on its impact, the Decca version with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan. After much negotiating, it was agreed that Kubrick may use that performance under the condition that it is never identified (perhaps I should have prefaced with “spoiler alert”). I am quite sure that if that were today, the power of the vehement timpanist in the opening of the SWR version in this outstanding new set could very well be the choice.

At the helm is François-Xavier Roth, the French conductor who is best known as the director of Les Siècles, an original instrument orchestra that he founded in 2013, and which has recorded many stunning versions of Baroque and early-20th-century favourites, including Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Among his myriad appointments and awards are general music director of the City of Cologne and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Undoubtedly his activities in the field of historically informed performance have attuned his ear to ensure every instrument in the orchestra is audible as these performances of familiar and perhaps less familiar tone poems demonstrate. They are Ein Heldenleben, Sinfonia Domestica, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Tod und Verklärung, Metamorphosen, Don Juan, Don Quixote, Eine Alpensinfonie, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streich, Aus Italien and Macbeth. Strauss is well served by performances of commitment and intensity, passages where winds, brass and percussion appear… not spot-lit but there. The perfectly recorded performances dating from 2012 to 2015, as in earlier recordings from this source, are convincingly live.

Roth’s same meticulous attention to detail and perfect balances may be viewed and heard conducting different orchestras in diverse repertoire on the optional music channels available on cable TV and YouTube.

12 Coleridge Taylor 1Uncovered, Vol. 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Catalyst Quartet; Stewart Goodyear; Anthony McGill
Azica ACD-71336 (catalystquartet.com/uncovered)

The late-19th-century British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, conquered the United States with his musical ingenuity. But could his being billed – somewhat patronizingly – as the “African Mahler” have blunted his singular musical achievements? We will never really know, and it may even be unimportant now as, with Uncovered, Vol. 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Catalyst Quartet turns the marquee lights on to illuminate his elegant music, and not the colour of his skin.

But poetic justice must also come by way of inviting pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinettist Anthony McGill – two prodigiously gifted Black musicians – to participate in this significant musical project. The association with Mahler does have some significance however, because it took decades of proselytizing by conductors such as Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Mengelberg and Leonard Bernstein before Mahler’s symphonies became audience-pullers. If it’s fallen upon the Catalyst to do likewise for Coleridge-Taylor they’ve certainly delivered. 

These are über-articulate readings of the Quintet in G Minor for Piano and Strings Op.1 featuring Goodyear, Quintet in F-sharp Minor for Clarinet and Strings Op.10 featuring McGill and Fantasiestücke for String Quartet Op.5. The Quartet’s musicians shape phrases with attention paid to every nuance of the scores, while the music’s grand sweep remains paramount throughout; Goodyear’s pianism sings in the piano quintet and McGill’s clarinet does likewise in Op.10. The Catalyst’s performance is marked by a wide range of touch and timbre, with extraordinary emphasis on the inner voices of Coleridge-Taylor’s eloquent music.

13 Symphonic RoarSymphonic Roar – An  Odyssey of Sound from the Paris Conservatoire
Yuri McCoy; Brady Spitz
Acis APL92957 (acisproductions.com)

Inspired by French composers’ exploitation of the organ’s myriad multicoloured sonorities in these “symphonic” works, Houston-based Yuri McCoy says he feels “free to orchestrate… in many different ways,” often making “many more registration changes than indicated in the score.” (As for the “roar,” wait for it!)

McCoy and console assistant Grant Wareham collaborate in Jean-Louis Florentz’s Poème Symphonique “La Croix du Sud” (2000), named for the constellation. With influences from Florentz’s teacher Messiaen, and Tuareg and Sufi music, it growls, chirps and surges around disquieting interludes that conjure mysterious, desolate landscapes.

A noble central anthem illuminates the celebratory Allegro Vivace from Felix Alexandre Guilmant’s Organ Sonata No.2 (1862). Joseph Bonnet’s brief Elfes from his 12 Pièces (1910) is a gossamer swirl of shimmering light, rendered in sound. Fantaisie, Op.101 (1895) by Camille Saint-Saëns comprises a murmuring, gentle andantino, a tempestuous fuga and a calm, reassuring finale. Clair de Lune from Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces, Suite No.2 (1926) paints a secluded nocturnal scene in muted pastel watercolour.

At nearly 28 minutes, the CD’s longest and most “symphonic” entry is a remarkably effective arrangement by McCoy and percussionist Brady Spitz of Edgard Varèse’s Amériques (1921), the original version requiring 27 woodwinds, 29 brass and an immense percussion battery. Collin Boothby assists McCoy on organ and Spitz on percussion, employing all of Varèse’s noisemakers – lion’s roar (!), siren, rattles, cyclone and steamboat whistles, etc., etc.

Fascinating listening, from mystery-laden start to roaring finish!

14 In a Time of WarIn a Time of War
Phillip O. Paglialonga; Richard Masters
Heritage HTGCD 173 (heritage-records.com)

In a Time of War, featuring clarinetist Phillip Paglialonga and pianist Richard Masters, proffers works by two composers suffering exile during WW2. An odd pairing to be sure, but it’s possible to hear some common ground between Serge Prokofiev and John Ireland. If you listen to the late moments of Ireland’s Fantasy-Sonata for Clarinet and Piano there’s an argument to be made. Written in 1943, the same year as Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata Op.94, the Ireland work does what a lot of mid-century English music does: explore modernity and expression, but aloof in a way that might evoke Prokofiev the man, although not his music. 

I think clarinetists should leave well enough alone when it comes to poaching repertoire, especially in the case of the Prokofiev, which after all was more or less stolen from flutists for the already-crammed violin library by David Oistrakh (with Prokofiev’s complicity!). Sorry, flutes, it’s a better piece in the second take. Opus 94a is heard as often, if not more than the original. The clarinet version here should maybe be called Opus 94a(b), I don’t know. It’s very dicey, range-wise, and hardly idiomatic for the clarinet. Paglialonga manages the high tessitura quite well, but most tempos are slower than you might be used to, and the balance has his sound too far in front of Masters, which jars a bit at the opening. The duo’s rendition is a work apart from the original, as a quick reference to Oistrakh’s recording will confirm. 

A third work is included, also from 1943, Ireland’s Sarnia: An Island Sequence, a solo Masters performs with more freedom than the other tracks demonstrate. These are good performances, if somewhat staid.

15 Classical KidsClassical Kids: Gershwin’s Magic Key
Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras
Classical Kids Music Education 270541 (classicalkidsnfp.org)

Gershwin’s Magic Key is the first new album in 20 years from the award-winning platinum-selling Classical Kids, most famous for Beethoven Lives Upstairs. This high quality, dynamic studio recording features the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras conducted by Allen Tinkham, voices of professional actors Elic Bramlett and Leslie Ann Sheppard, and head writer/music supervisor/featured pianist Will Martin, who premiered the original live concert.

Set in 1920s New York, the three-act story revolves around a newspaper boy’s chance meeting with composer George Gershwin, leading to the two travelling through New York, verbally telling stories based on Gershwin’s life and the times, intertwined with his music. The opening attention-grabbing string swirls, clear spoken words, piano solo and wailing clarinet set the stage for a fast-paced, exciting fact-based production both children and adults will love. The supportive spoken tips from Gershwin, such as “I was a changed person learning piano; Every sound is music; Do not let anyone tell you what you can or cannot be;” are positive reinforcement for the boy, and all children listening and reading the liner notes. 

Gershwin’s compositions featured include fabulous orchestral renditions of Summertime, An American in Paris and the upbeat singalong/dance-along I Got Rhythm. Educational musical outtakes from other composers include Dvořák’s Humoresque, the Tin Pan Alley hit Take Me out to the Ballgame, and 1920’s Baby Face. Finale recreates the world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, from the piano/orchestra exuberant performance to the recording’s closing audience cheers. Bravo!

01 TapeoThe Canadian duo of cellist Cameron Crozman and pianist Philip Chiu is in fine form on Tapeo, a delightful recital of popular Spanish pieces (ATMA Classique ACD2 2820 atmaclassique.com/en).

Crozman says that he fell in love with Spain the moment he first stepped into the Tapeo tapas bar on his first day in Barcelona, and when the Canada Council awarded him the loan of the “El Tiburon” cello from around 1769 attributed to the Spanish maker Joannes Guillami he knew he had to make a recording honouring its Spanish origins. Crozman describes the resulting CD as his own “tapas party” of short, diverse Spanish pieces.

Included are Cassadó’s Requiebros, de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habañera and Alborada del Gracioso, Turina’s Polimnia-Nocturno, Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas, Albéniz’s Asturias (Leyenda), Ginastera’s Triste, Estrellita by the Mexican Manuel Ponce and Chants oubliés by the Chilean-Canadian Alberto Guerrero.

The gentle warmth of the Guillami cello’s tone is perfect for this material, with both performers providing beautifully nuanced playing in a top-quality CD.

Listen to 'Tapeo' Now in the Listening Room

02 Weinberg ConcertoViolinist Gidon Kremer continues his passionate promotion of the previously neglected music of Shostakovich’s close friend and compatriot with Mieczysław Weinberg Violin Concerto, a live performance of the Concerto in G Minor Op.67 recorded in Leipzig in February 2020 as part of a series of concerts marking the composer’s 2019 centenary; Daniele Gatti conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Accentus Music ACC30518 accentus.com/discs/518).

Weinberg completed the four-movement concerto in 1959 at the end of a particularly creative phase. Written six years after the death of Stalin, it’s essentially a warmly lyrical work with spikier moments that clearly shows his musical relationship with Shostakovich, albeit without the sense of tension and utter despair that often haunted the latter’s compositions in the Stalin era.

Kremer is joined by Madara Petersone, the leader of his Kremerata Baltica ensemble, in a studio recording of the terrific three-movement Sonata for Two Violins Op.69, also from 1959. 

03 Il Cannone CoverIn October 2019 the Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego was given the honour of performing Paganini’s Concerto No.1 in Genoa on Paganini’s 1743 Guarneri del Gesù “il Cannone” violin, after which she was allowed to record with the instrument in Genoa Town Hall, where it is permanently housed and guarded by a six-person security detail. The result is Il Cannone: Francesca Dego plays Paganini’s Violin, where she is accompanied by her regular recital partner Francesca Leonardi in a program of works that pay homage to the famous virtuoso (Chandos CHAN 20223 chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%2020223).

Four of the works here are for solo violin: Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice; John Corigliano’s The Red Violin Caprices; Carlo Boccadoro’s Come d’autunno; and Schnittke’s tough and quite abrasive A Paganini.

The works with piano are Clochette (Kreisler’s arrangement of La Campanella), Rossini’s Un mot à Paganini, and two works, in particular, that showcase the instrument’s glorious singing quality: Boccadoro’s arrangement of Paganini’s Cantabile and Szymanowski’s Trois Caprices de Paganini. The sweeping melodic phrases, the sweetness and strength in the highest register and the crystal-clear harmonics in these settings of Caprices Nos. 20, 21 and 24 complete a dazzling CD.

04 Schubert DaskalakisWith Franz Schubert Music for Violin II violinist Ariadne Daskalakis and Paolo Giacometti, on fortepiano, complete their survey of Schubert’s music for violin using a historical approach aimed at understanding the framework of Schubert’s time (BIS-2373 bis.se).

The Rondo in B Minor Op.70 D895 “Rondeau brillant” from 1826 provides a strong opening to the disc, bringing appropriately bright and clear playing from Daskalakis, the full recorded resonance allowing the fortepiano to sound warm and not at all dry.

Two of the three Sonatas Op.137 from 1816 (published by Diabelli in 1836 as Sonatinas) are here, No.1 in D Major D384 and No.2 in A Minor D385 drawing terrific playing from both performers, with lovely definition and dynamics in the former and very effective passages in the latter where Daskalakis uses no vibrato. The Duo Sonata in A Major Op.162 D574 from 1817 completes a fascinating CD, full of expansive, visceral music-making.

The fortepiano is by Salvatore Lagrassa from around 1815, so exactly contemporary with the music here, and the violin is a 1754 Guadagnini with gut strings and a classical bridge. The instruments are tuned to 430 Hz.

05 Raphael Pidoux Beethoven Op.5Two instruments from the Paris Musée de la musique provide a fascinating sound on Beethoven Cello Sonatas Op.5, with Raphaël Pidoux playing a 1734 cello by Pietro Guarneri of Venice and Tanguy de Williencourt playing an 1855 piano by Carl Gulius Gebauhr (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902410 store.harmoniamundi.com/format/635912-beethoven-cello-sonatas-op-5).

Both sonatas – No.1 in F Major and No.2 in G Minor – have no slow movement, the two-movement form in each being essentially Adagio – Allegro and Rondo – Allegro. Dedicated to Frederick William II, King of Prussia (himself an accomplished cellist), they were written in 1796 when Beethoven was in Berlin. Despite being published by Artaria in 1797 as sonatas for keyboard “with an obligato cello” they are the first duos to treat both instruments equally, the booklet essay noting their “brilliant writing, ambition and ample dimensions.”

Two works inspired by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte complete the disc: Beethoven’s 1801 Seven Variations on “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” WoO46 and the Nocturne “Souvenirs de la Flûte enchantée” from 1825 by pianist Camille Pleyel and cellist Charles-Nicolas Baudiot.

06 Haydn London Haydn QuartetThe London Haydn Quartet reaches volume nine in its ongoing set of the complete string quartets of Joseph Haydn with Haydn String Quartets Op.76, a 2CD set priced as a single disc (Hyperion CDA 68335 hyperion-records.co.uk/a.asp?a=A1711).

The six quartets – No. 1 in G Major, No.2 in D Minor “Fifths,” No.3 in C Major “Emperor,” No.4 in B-flat Major “Sunrise,” No.5 in D Major “Largo” and No.6 in E-flat Major – date from 1797 when Haydn was at the height of his creative powers in his string quartet writing; “no set of 18th century string quartets,” notes the excellent booklet essay, “is so wide-ranging in expression, or so heedless of the structural norms of the time.

Using the 1799 editions published by Longman, Clementi & Co. of London and Artaria of Vienna, the players show the same outstanding qualities – the faultless intonation on gut strings, the range of nuances and dynamics, the perfect ensemble feel – that have resulted in this series of quite superb period performances garnering rave reviews. 

07 ModiglianiThe Haydn “Fifths” quartet also turns up on Haydn – Bartók – Mozart, the new CD from the Quatuor Modigliani that features three works that each bear witness to a turning point in the lives of their composers and the advent of new horizons (Mirare MIR506 en.modiglianiquartet.com).

Haydn’s String Quartet in D Minor Op.76 No.2 was written when he was free from his service at the Esterházy estate and was the toast of Vienna after his two hugely successful trips to England. The opening tempo is markedly faster than on The London Haydn Quartet CD, but even with the accent more on lightness and clarity there’s no lack of emotional depth.

The political situation in Hungary at the end of the Great War badly hindered Bartók’s folk music research and deeply affected him; he wrote very little until an outpouring of piano music in 1926. The following year saw his String Quartet No.3 Sz.85, the shortest of his six quartets but the one that heralded his mature style.

Mozart’s String Quartet No.19 in C Major K465 “Dissonance” dates from 1785, and is the last of the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, whose Op.33 quartets he had heard after arriving in Vienna in 1781. Study of the music of Bach and Handel at that time resulted in a more marked presence of counterpoint in Mozart’s music.

There’s outstanding playing throughout the CD, but the Mozart, in particular, is absolutely beautiful, with clarity and warmth and a crystal-clear Allegro final movement.

08 Vagh HolmboeWith Vagn Holmboe String Quartets Vol.1 Denmark’s Nightingale String Quartet embarks on what promises to be an outstanding set of quartets by the Danish composer who lived from 1909 to 1996 (Dacapo 8.226212 dacapo-records.dk/en).

Holmboe wrote quartets throughout his life and completed over 30, 22 of which are in his official catalogue. Although his lasting role model was Haydn, Bartók’s quartets also became a big influence.

Holmboe had already written ten unpublished quartets before his three-movement String Quartet No.1 Op.46 from 1949, subtitled In memoriam Béla Bartók. The other two works on this first volume are the five-movement String Quartet No.3 Op.48, also from 1949, and the four-movement String Quartet No.15 Op.135 from 1978, its third movement Funèbre very much of Shostakovich’s sound world.

Interestingly – in 2010 – Dacapo, Denmark’s national record label, issued a 7CD box set of the complete 22 Holmboe quartets, apparently assembled from individual issues from the late 1990s and performed by the Kontra Quartet, who “enjoyed a close collaboration with the composer.” This new project promises “fresh, new performances that support the idea that the deeper you dig into Holmboe’s music, the more you find.”

The terrific performances here certainly make a great start. 

09 Strauss ChamberThe Oculi Ensemble is a flexible string ensemble comprised primarily of members of leading string quartets and dedicated to exploring string repertoire for two to seven players. Metamorphosen – Strauss Chamber Works is their debut CD as a stand-alone ensemble (Champs Hill Records CHRCD155 champshillrecords.co.uk).

The Prelude to the opera Capriccio Op.85 from 1940-41 opens the disc, followed by two works for string quartet: the extremely brief fragment Quartettsatz in E-flat Major TRV85 from 1879 (recorded with the permission of the Strauss family) and the String Quartet in A Major from 1880. Three brief works for piano quartet follow: Ständchen from the early 1880s; Festmarsch AV178 from November 1886; and the Two Pieces AV182 – Arabischer Tanz and Liebesliedchen from 1893.

The title track completes the CD. Commissioned for 23 solo strings, Metamorphosen wasn’t finished until after the February 1945 Allied bombing raid that destroyed Strauss’ beloved Dresden, Strauss completing a draft short-score for seven solo strings that March. That manuscript was rediscovered in Switzerland in 1990 and edited for performance by cellist Rudolf Leopold in 1994. Impassioned playing, recorded in the excellent acoustics of the Music Room at Champs Hill, West Sussex, ends a highly commendable CD.

10 Jupiter Jasper QuartetsThe excellent new CD by the Jupiter and Jasper String Quartets, music by Mendelssohn – Visconti – Golijov simply abounds with familial relationships, three Freivogel siblings (a brother and two sisters) and two spouses making for a remarkably close connection between the two ensembles (Marquis 81613 marquisclassics.com/index.html). 

A luminous opening to the Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major Op.20 sets the tone for a simply thrilling performance – vibrant, pulsating and dynamic with a dancing Scherzo and a sweeping Presto finale.

Dan Visconti’s quite beautiful Eternal Breath, envisioned as a work that would involve their four children and their musical spouses, was commissioned in 2011 by the Freivogel parents (who also funded the recording) for their 40th wedding anniversary. Originally for three violins, a viola, three cellos and a drone box, it is heard here in the later adaptation with a second viola replacing the third cello.

Osvaldo Golijov’s two-movement Last Round from 1996 is a tribute to Astor Piazzolla, the octet being joined by a string bass in Last Round – Movido, urgente and Muertes del Angel, the whole work described by Golijov as “an idealized bandoneón.”

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